Ski Areas Find Seasonal Workers In Short Supply As ski season starts, resorts across the country are scrambling to find enough workers. Record low unemployment, expensive housing and fewer visas for foreign wokers make this year especially tough.
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Ski Areas Find Seasonal Workers In Short Supply

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Ski Areas Find Seasonal Workers In Short Supply

Ski Areas Find Seasonal Workers In Short Supply

Ski Areas Find Seasonal Workers In Short Supply

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As ski season starts, resorts across the country are scrambling to find enough workers. Record low unemployment, expensive housing and fewer visas for foreign wokers make this year especially tough.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the ski season in the United States. There's usually enough snow around for resorts to open by now. But ski areas need something else - seasonal workers, who are becoming harder to find. Wyoming Public Radio's Maggie Mullen reports.

MAGGIE MULLEN, BYLINE: David Byrd with the National Ski Areas Association says for a long time, ski resorts had one big incentive to attract all the workers they needed - a season pass.

DAVID BYRD: Those days are long gone.

MULLEN: That's true, says Lauren Duke with Steamboat Springs Ski Resort (ph) in Colorado. She says it's tough to hire with unemployment around 4 percent nationally.

LORYN DUKE: The resort industry usually trends with the economy.

MULLEN: Here at the base of the Steamboat's Christie Peak Express Lift, Duke says that means resorts have to do more.

DUKE: I think everyone in the ski industry is always looking for ways to make their workplace the best workplace.

MULLEN: Steamboat has increased base wages to $12.50 an hour, about a buck fifty above Colorado's minimum wage. Seasonal workers who stay on for 9 to 11 months get benefits like health insurance and paid time off and parental leave. Those only on for the ski season get perks like warm lunch or dinner for $3 to $5 and discounted lift tickets for friends and family. Plus, their season pass can be used at other resorts in the area. Deb Holloway, a 26-season veteran of Steamboat Ski Patrol, says she's seen affordable housing become more of an issue.

DEB HOLLOWAY: The amount of reasonable rental properties, I think, is certainly diminishing over time. And that's tough.

MULLEN: As second homes and services like Airbnb and VRBO are reducing housing stock in resort areas, more resorts are offering workforce housing. Steamboat offers some staff rentals for $350 to $450 a month, about two-thirds cheaper than the lowest-end local free market rentals. Plus, Steamboat's units are right next to the resort. Norman Nickerson says that kind of proximity is important.

NORMA NICKERSON: You're not going to drive from Denver all the way to Vail every single day as a worker.

MULLEN: Nickerson directs the University of Montana's Institute for tourism and recreation research.

NICKERSON: I know that some of the ski resorts have said, well, if we don't get full staff or we're - you know, we're right on that edge. And then, of course, somebody gets sick, or they can't be there for a few days. The administrative people are out there doing those jobs just to fill in.

MULLEN: And when that doesn't cut it, she says resorts cut down on services, like reducing restaurant hours and closing particular runs.

NICKERSON: You're leaving money on the table. They don't want to do that, but they're forced to.

MULLEN: Another wrinkle in the industry's labor market - resorts have traditionally depended on foreign workers in the U.S. on J-1 visas. But a Trump administration executive order placing restrictions on that program means that pool of employees has also been reduced. David Byrd says it's not just a problem across the Rockies.

BYRD: What I hear a lot from ski area owners and operators - and it's true from large resorts down to small resorts - we're not selling close to all the jobs that we have that are available.

MULLEN: And if you do land one of those jobs, you'll still get the season pass. But ski resorts now know that alone just isn't a sweet enough deal anymore. For NPR News, I'm Maggie Mullen in Laramie.

INSKEEP: That story came to us from the Mountain West News Bureau.

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